Wednesday, April 8, 2020

John Prine and His Influence on the Environmental Movement

Near Cumberland, West Virginia.
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Musician and songwriter John Prine died yesterday as a result of complications of COVID-19. I only saw John Prine once live back in the 1990's when he was on tour with Bonnie Raitt. I didn't really follow his career that much. However, one song of his had a tremendous influence on the environmental movement of my generation -- Paradise. Certainly he wrote other songs that were important and that had an impact. However, Paradise remains one of the most important songs that influenced many people to think about the environment in new ways.

I remember when I first heard the song in the mid 1970's. I was on a road trip with my parents to see the Appalachian Mountains. It was one of the first major road trips I took with them alone. I was the youngest of 6 kids so one of my other brothers or sisters was always with us on most excursions. However, on this trip, I sat alone in the backseat of the station wagon with books, maps, and a journal as I watched the landscape of eastern North American pass by my window.

Coal production in Muhlenberg, Kentucky.
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We traveled all over Appalachia that week although we spent most of the time in West Virginia seeing the sites. It was great fun to have that time with my folks and the trip would have been memorable just for that experience. We stayed in hotels along the way. One night, I think we were somewhere near Cumberland, West Virginia, we stayed in a hotel that had a restaurant and bar attached to it. That night at the bar there was a band. We went to dinner and stuck around the bar to listen to the music.

My father, who was a professional musician early in his life, loved music and frequently played guitar and sang at home with the family. He also relished live music and the band that night played a mix of country, bluegrass, and rock. One of the songs they did was John Prine's Paradise. It was out on Prine's first album in 1971 and covered by John Denver on his hit album Rocky Mountain High in 1972. I didn't know the song, but the lyrics struck me greatly since it focuses on mining in the Appalachians and I was in the midst of those very mountains.

My dad playing mandolin at a family gathering.
The lyrics, which are linked here, tell the story of a young man longing for a natural landscape in western Kentucky that was lost due to coal mining. The mining, it turns out, is seen to some as part of the progress of man while to others the land and its communities are forsaken. The song's lyrics capture in high definition the range of issues associated with modern sustainability. It provides witness to the loss of natural landscapes and loss of communities as we advanced into our modern technological society. I have spoken with many environmentalists around my age who were also influenced by the song. It is still regularly performed and it is part of the history of the environmental movement.

The song is important for not only clearly articulating the impacts of the destruction of landscapes, but also for being one of the key pieces of music that reflects a certain type of rural environmentalism. It must be remembered that the environmental movement of that time was largely a white middle class movement that was highly suburbanized and becoming urbanized. This song captures a more rural sentiment that was not widely part of the environmental canon of the 1970's.

Since the night I heard the song with my parents, I have probably heard it dozens of times by a number of different types of bands. Each time I hear it, the song brings me back to that night in West Virginia. It also reminds me why I do what I do.

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